A State of the Bears Address

Introduction

I usually groan when bloggers do things like this.  They almost always end up being long and winding discourses without focus that lose me about two paragraphs in.   Nevertheless, I actually had to put one together to apply to be a Bears “super fan” at ESPN Football Today so there’s a slight chance they’ll read parts of it to tear up on the podcast.  I figure if they get to take shots at me the least I can do is put it out there and let my friends do it as well.  I hope it generates some interesting discussion on the mailing lists and in some of the groups.

For a team that was a win away from the Super Bowl last year, the Bears have an amazing number of needs.  This is a veteran team with an aging defense that went through the season with barely a scratch due to injury.  Nevertheless the Bears got beat in the playoffs by a younger and much more injured Green Bay team.  It kills me as a Bears fan to say it but despite having so much fall in the Bears’ favor, Green Bay was the decidedly better team at the end of the year.

Coming off of what appeared from the outside looking in to be a good year, the Bears are in a deceptively bad situation, especially with a younger Lions team on the rise.  If the Vikings were to some how solve their quarterback problem with a good, immediate solution, they’ve also still got the horses to be a heap of trouble.

Headed into the Draft

Given their age, particularly on defense, the Bears need to build through the draft to fix what ails them.  Jerry Angelo’s draft strategy is usually very good and as a fan I’ve learned a great deal from him.  For example he works hard to leave himself open to take the best player available and he doesn’t fall in love with one guy.  Ordinarily this means re-signing your own guys and plugging holes with free agents that bring good value, leaving yourself free to take a talented player in the draft at most positions.

Obviously that isn’t what’s likely to happen this year as free agency is probably going to come after the draft instead of before the draft.  So Angelo took an interesting tack.  He left some of the free agents like Olin Kreutz, Anthony Adams, Pisa Tinoisamoa and, to a lesser extent, Danieal Manning hit the market.  This created holes to be filled in the draft with whatever the talent falls to them.  Then you figure he can make an effort to re-sign the guys he needs if necessary when free agency finally begins.  Frankly, the whole thing fascinates me.

Given Angelo’s strategy and approach to the draft, you’d think the Bears would be pretty good at it.  They’re not.  Like many good football teams you can have a great game plan but you still have to execute on the field.  The Bears are probably average at best in finding players in the draft and that’s only because they’ve been good in the later rounds.  Its true that they haven’t had first round picks for two years but Angelo’s record over his entire tenure with the Bears in the first three rounds hasn’t been good.  This might have been a factor in the shake up of their personnel department which resulted in the hiring of Tim Ruskell as director of player personnel.

Despite picking late the Bears do have some advantages this year.  They finally have the quarterback position working for them in the draft instead of against them and the Jay Cutler trade which resulted in the loss of first round picks in 2009 and 2010 and the loss of a third rounder in 2009, might finally start paying off.  The Bears don’t have a need at quarterback early in this draft but as many as a dozen other teams do.  That could means two things:

1) lots of opportunity to trade down with teams deperate to reach for a quarterback late in round 1.

2)  good non-quarterbacks falling to you as teams trade up into the mid-twenties to take guys you have no interest in.

Trading down is what I’d do here if possible.  I subscribe to the theory that two top 65 players are better than one and that there’s little difference between the 18th rated player on your board and a selection No. 45.  Having said that, I’m going to assume for the purposes of this application that the Bears don’t trade down and take the best available with three picks in rounds 1-3 and I’m assuming that they look for those players to compete to start.

The Bears absolutely have to hit on these picks.  People think what kills you the most is not drafting Pro Bowlers.  That hurts but far and away the fastest way to kill a team is to continue to address the same need position draft after draft because the guy you took last year didn’t cut it.  The Bears do need young playmakers but more than that, they need young guys who can start at positions the team can then forget about for years to come.  When you’re picking at 29, those are the guys you are more likely to find.

I didn’t shoot the moon by pushing for huge, big time free agents in this post.  Instead I worked under the assumption that the Bears will approach it as they have the majority of the time in the past.  They’re probably willing to spend some money in free agency but realistically the Bears usually look for value guys most years rather than the Julius Peppers of the world.

My needs are:

1)  offensive line
2)  defensive ine
3)  linebacker
4)  defensive back
5)  wide receiver
6)  quarterback
7)  running back

I’m assuming guys like Mike Pouncey are long gone but if any of the obvious, more highly ranked prospects at the line of scrimmage falls, the Bears should run, not walk, to the podium to take him.  Having said that, I’m stacking my first round board of likely candidates this way:

Ryan Kerrigan
Akeem Ayers
Stephen Paea
Cameron Heyward
Brooks Reed
Danny Watkins
Nate Solder
Gabe Carimi
Rodney Hudson

Offensive line

The offensive line blocked reasonably well in the running game but fell short protecting Cutler.  Cutler was sacked 52 times.  Nine of those came agains the New York Giants in Week 4 where he suffered a concussion.

The Bears have two key questions:

1)  What do you do at left tackle?
2)  What do you do with Chris Williams?

Williams finished the year at left guard but there’s no consensus on what they’re going to do with him.  One thing is reasonably certain.  They need to make a decision this offseason and they need to leave him wherever they put him to develop.

A lot may depend upon who falls to the Bears in the draft.  This is a good class for guards and centers and the guess here is that they draft at least one interior offensive lineman in the first three rounds.  I think this would be ideal.  Interior linemen tend to hit in the draft and to my eye Williams has been at his best at right tackle, which is where I’d move him and which is where I’d leave him from here on out.  The Bears are high on J’Marcus Webb and they swear he’s a good possibility at left tackle.  I have my doubts but I’ll accept it for now and leave Frank Omiyale to compete on both sides.

Worst case scenario is Webb fails at left tackle and Omiyale takes over.  The Bears are better and younger on the inside and they’re no worse at tackle than they were last year.  Best case scenario is they get younger everywhere and stabilize the line for years to come.

Aging free agent center Olin Kreutz appears to be the odd man out in this scenario.  If your drafted interior lineman isn’t a center, either Roberto Garza moves over (he’s played the position before) or Edwin Williams takes over there.  The Bears still like Lance Louis and E. Williams and its likely they’ll be able to compete for the jobs inside.

There is the possibility the Bears go offensive tackle in the first round here.  Nate Solder, Gabe Carimi and Derek Sherrod come to mind.  They’re all flawed, boom or bust guys.  It makes little sense to me to pick one unless you can plug him in on the left and I’m not seeing it at the end of round one.  I think picking up an interior lineman in rounds two or three or a guard like Danny Watkins or Rodney Hudson in round one is the safer route.

If the Bears do take a tackle, they should re-sign Kreutz and leave Chris Williams at guard.

Defensive line

Julius Peppers was on the field 88% of the time in 2010.  His counterpart Israel Idonije was on the field 80% of the time.  Peppers and Idonije combined for 3-1/2 sacks in the final seven games including the postseason.  The Bears talk about keeping their defensive linemen fresh by playing them in waves and clearly they aren’t doing it here.  They need a more capable third end.

The Bears also have to replace Tommie Harris, who was finally released, and they’ve let Anthony Adams hit free agency.  These are considerable voids to fill.

If I’m the Bears, I’m depending upon Matt Toeaina to continue to give solid play on a lot of the snaps.  I think I’ve also got no choice but to hope that Henry Melton makes a big step at defensive tackle next year.  Corey Wooton is another young guy at defensive end and he should be allowed to compete for some playing time.

But no matter what, I’m definitely looking at the draft here and I’m thinking that most likely I’m finding my guy in the first round.  Ryan Kerrigan, Stephen Paea, Cameron Heyward and Brooks Reed are all possibilities here, probably in that order.  I’d also like to see them re-sign Adams, particularly if the draft pick is a defensive end.

Linebacker

I’m astounded at how few experts see linebacker as a need for the Bears.  They have two – count them TWO – linebackers under contract, albeit good ones.  They are middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and weak side linebacker Lance Briggs.

The Bears let strong side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa go to free agency and have extended a restricted free agent tender to Nick Roach under the 2010 rules.  But the fact remains that they need a starter at strong side linebacker and that should be a younger guy who could eventually move inside to replace the aging Urlacher.  They also need depth and they’re going to need special teams out of that depth at this position.

If I’m the Bears I’m looking to draft a starting strong side linebacker, probably in rounds two or three.  Akeem Ayers might be there in round one and is a possibility.  I’m also looking to resign Roach and perhaps at least one second tier free agent or one late round pick for depth.  Paul Posluszny comes to mind as a potential free agent and Jerry Angelo has always had a soft spot for Rocky McIntosh.  There would be nothing wrong with re-signing Tinoisamoa at their price.

Defensive back

The New England Patriots scarred me for life last season.  They literally shredded the Bears in one half of football before taking the rest of the game off and it was mostly because of one man – Wes Welker.  Really good teams like the Patriots are superb at moving versatile players around to create mismatches.  The only way to deal with these teams is to spend at least some time in single coverage rather than sitting in zone coverage and letting them do it.  That’s tough for a cover two team like the Bears because they don’t draft those kinds of corners.  They spend their money up front to create a pass rush and leave the coverage to bigger corners who can redirect receivers inside and play a zone.  So though the Bears did mix their coverages well last year, they had no answer for good guys like Welker in the slot and if they’re ever going to be among the elite, they have to find a third corner.  He doesn’t have to be great but he has to have some different qualities from the ones they have.

The Bears have Charles Tillman here and he’s a fixture.  But other than that, they have Zack Bowman, who spent the year in Lovie Smith’s dog house and Tim Jennings who did a serviceable job but who is only 5’8” and is just too short for comfort.  D.J. Moore was the nickel back and he was adequate most of the time but, as I said before, the Bears need an upgrade here.

At safety they’ve got Chris Harris, who will now be the strong safety opposite Major Wright at free safety.  They’ve let Danieal Manning hit free agency but I think they should re-sign him once he finds his worth on the open market.  They also need to re-sign Josh Bullocks who is a good special teams performer.

My gut feeling is that this is a need that might not get filled this year.  Aaron Williams and Brandon Harris are potential first round draft picks at corner but I think we’re looking for a later value pick in a middle round that you hope hits big.  Carlos Rogers might be a free agent choice here.

Quarterback

Its fish or cut bait time for Caleb Hanie at quarterback.  Jerry Angelo likes him but offensive coordinator Mike Martz doesn’t seem to.  In any case, Hanie is entering his fourth year in the league and he needs to either win the back up job or go.

The Bears need to look to draft a developmental quarterback in the mid to late rounds.  They also need to sign a free agent to compete with Hanie.  I’ve heard Drew Stanton’s name bandied about and he’d be an interesting choice.  Other than that there are plenty of veteran guys out there and its just a question of waiting until the starting jobs are filled and then picking the best one who will take a back up job.

Wide Receiver

Some are going to be surprised that I didn’t put wide receiver higher on this list.  There’s a reason for that.  The Bears receiver corp isn’t that great.  But they aren’t that bad, either.  Mostly they’re JAGs.

I like Earl Bennett.  He’s a reliable underneath guy that every team needs.  He makes plays when he needs to but he’s never going to be a game breaker.  Devin Hester is forever raw.  Johnny Knox shows flashes of potential but he was a fifth round pick and sometimes it shows.  He disappeared in the Green Bay games late in the year when their corners got physical with him.  Devin Aromashodu is gone.  The Bears have signed Andy Fantuz from the CFL but they could use a bigger guy.

Again, I’ll point to the Patriots and to the Packers as the way to become an elite team in the NFL.  You become a team that can create mismatches.  The Bears need better wide receiver play to do that.  The problem is that I don’t see it happening this year because they have too many higher priority positions to upgrade.

Bottom line, you don’t target wide receiver this year in the draft or in free agency if you are the Bears.  But if the high potential boom or bust type falls into the mid- to late- rounds, you take him.

Runningback

The Bears are really full up at running back but beyond Matt Forte, they’re all pretty much expendable.  Chester Taylor will be given another year but he’s got to perform better.  One of the problems the Bears have is that Taylor, Forte and Kahlil Bell are all the same back.  They need a bigger change of pace guy with a different style.  Harvey Unga, who the Bears took in the supplemental draft last year, might fit the bill but he was a seventh rounder and if you’re holding your breath waiting for a guy like that to emerge you’re in trouble.

The running game is really important in Chicago in November and December.  I’m not saying its a major priority but if a bigger back falls into their laps in the mid-to-late rounds, I see a need I’d like to see filled here.

This entry was posted in Chicago Bears. Bookmark the permalink.